What is tinnitus and could you have it?

Ever get a ringing in your ears? It might be tinnitus – here’s what to do.

Ever stood too close to a giant speaker at a concert, only for your ears to ring for hours afterwards? Or struggled to fall asleep because of the distracting hum sounding in your head?

[Read more: Jo Whiley: My battle with tinnitus and how it gave me anxiety]

Hearing such noises – ringing, buzzing, humming, whooshing, etc – when there’s no external cause for the sound is known as tinnitus.

A symptom, rather than an illness or disease, anybody, including children, can experience tinnitus. But it’s far more common in older age groups and believed to affect around 10% of UK adults, or about six million people, according to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), and for some people it can have a significant impact.

“When someone first experiences tinnitus, it can be very frightening and have an enormous impact on quality of life,” says David Stockdale, chief executive of the British Tinnitus Association.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus can be a tricky condition to explain, but experts believe the sounds experienced are “related to changes in activity or connectivity within the hearing system and brain”, and a number of risk factors have been indentified.

“The main risk factor is hearing loss. Exposure to loud noise, ear infections, certain medications, stress, and head injuries are some of the other risk factors,” says Tony Kay, head of Audiology Services at Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool.

Specsavers chief audiologist Nick Taylor adds: "Tinnitus is an extremely common problem, although the exact cause of it is still unknown. It is a symptom – rather than a disorder or disease – that affects a person’s nerve pathway between the ear and the brain, and the type of noise heard varies from person to person."

That’s not to say everybody who experiences these things will get tinnitus – rather these factors may be a ‘trigger’ for some people. Stress is a big example of this; psychological stress and anxiety is now recognised as a possible ‘trigger’ across a range of physical symptoms and conditions, especially in people pre-disposed to them.

[Read more: Susanna Reid: Tinnitus made me fear I’d never hear silence again] 

How bad is tinnitus?

Thankfully, tinnitus will often just be temporary, or it’ll be very minor and won’t have too much impact. But for some it can become a big problem and have a significant affect on quality of life and wellbeing, impacting sleep and concentration, which can in turn affect people at work and in their relationships, and even be linked with anxiety and depression, the BTF highlights. But “there is hope”, Kay points out, and while it can be extremely distressing, “it does tend to get less annoying over time for the majority”.

What can be done about tinnitus?

This partly depends on what’s causing the tinnitus, how bad it is, and what impact it’s having. If an infection or blockage is identified, treating these may relieve the tinnitus. Where stress is a factor, identifying ‘triggers’ and taking appropriate steps to manage stress can help. Kay notes that mostly, “tinnitus is managed rather than cured, and modern therapies are effective for most”.

Methods such as using background noise to “reduce the intrusiveness of tinnitus” can help, along with making room for things like relaxation, keeping active and keeping up your social life. "Studies have shown that over time, tinnitus becomes less intrusive as the brain loses interest in it; this process is called habituation,” notes Kay.

If tinnitus is causing distress, often just talking about it with people who understand and who can offer useful advice around managing it, can make the world of difference, and those with troublesome symptoms should ask their GP for a referral to a tinnitus clinic.

[Read more: 5 signs you’re going deaf]

Can you prevent tinnitus?

Because exposure to loud noise is a major factor in tinnitus - which is why those who work in certain jobs, where they’re regularly exposed to loud noise, are recognised as being more at risk - often it can be prevented, as there’s lots you can do to take steps to protect your hearing from loud-noise damage, by being aware of what equates to ‘dangerous’ noise levels, and using ear guards and earplugs where necessary. Keeping a check on the TV volume, and while listening to music with headphones, is important too.

‘Together for Tinnitus’

For this year’s Tinnitus Awareness Week, there’s focus on raising awareness among GPs, which will hopefully lead to better support for patients. The BTA is also promoting their new online resource for people newly diagnosed, www.takeontinnitus.co.uk, which is packed with useful info, tips and advice.

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